Here’s Who’s Sitting With Michelle Obama During The State Of The Union Address

January 19, 2015 by  
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WASHINGTON (AP) — A Maryland man who returned home last month after spending five years imprisoned in Cuba will have a prime viewing spot for President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address: a seat near first lady Michelle Obama.

Alan Gross and his wife, Judy, are among 22 special guests the White House invited to Tuesday night’s speech.

It’s become tradition for presidents to invite people whose stories of tragedy or triumph highlight an issue or public policy. President Ronald Reagan was the first to do so in 1982 and acknowledge the guests, who sit with the first lady, during the speech. Every president since has continued the tradition.

The year’s group includes astronaut Scott Kelly, the president and CEO of CVS Health and eight people who wrote letters to Obama, including four he spent time with last year.

Gross is a former federal subcontractor who was arrested in Cuba in 2009. His wife and others said he was there to set up Internet access for the small Jewish community on the communist island. He was released last month as part of a historic announcement by Obama that the U.S. would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after five decades.

Kelly, of Houston, is preparing to blast off in March on a yearlong space mission, longer than any other U.S. astronaut. His identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, is married to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. She was gravely wounded four years ago during a shooting at a political event she held in Tucson. Six people were killed and 13 were injured. Scientists will compare medical data from the brothers to understand how the human body responds to longer durations in space.

CVS Health pulled cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products from its store shelves last year, a move that was applauded by Obama, a former smoker often seen chewing nicotine gum. The decision by CVS Health earned Larry Merlo, the drugstore chain’s top executive, a seat in the first lady’s box.

The other guests, as identified by the White House, are:

— Malik Bryant, of Chicago. The 13-year-old wrote a letter to Santa over the holidays asking for safety. Instead of forwarding the letter to the North Pole, a nonprofit organization redirected it to the White House. Obama wrote back to say that security was a priority for him, too.

— Chelsey Davis, of Knoxville, Tennessee. Davis is scheduled to graduate in May from Pellissippi State Community College with a bachelor’s degree in nutritional science. She met Obama when he visited her school this month to announce a plan to make two years of community college free for students who keep their grades up.

— LeDaya Epps, of Compton, California. The mother of three completed a union apprenticeship in construction, one of only two women to do so, and is on the crew building the Crenshaw/LAX light rail line. Obama has promoted apprenticeships as a way for people to get training for skilled jobs.

— Rebekah Erler, of Minneapolis. The wife and mother of two young boys wrote to Obama about how her family suffered after her husband’s construction business folded. Both are working again and recently bought their first home. Obama spent a day with Erler in Minnesota last year.

— Victor Fugate, of Kansas City. Fugate wrote to Obama to share how he went from being an unemployed new father to getting his degree and helping low-income patients obtain medical care. Fugate says he and his wife are benefiting from an Obama program that caps monthly student loan payments. Obama met Fugate in Kansas City in July.

— Retired Army Staff Sgt. Jason Gibson, of Westerville, Ohio. Gibson wrote to Obama to thank the president for visiting him as he recovered from injuries, including the loss of both legs. Gibson surfs, skis, has completed marathons on a hand cycle and earned a pilot’s license. He welcomed his first child in November.

— Nicole Hernandez Hammer, of southeast Florida. Hammer is a sea-level researcher who studies how cities and other areas most vulnerable to the effects of climate change also have large Hispanic populations. She works to raise Latinos’ awareness of climate change. Addressing climate change is an Obama priority.

— Anthony Mendez, of New York City. The University of Hartford freshman once had to rise at 4:30 a.m. to get to school after his family was evicted and forced to live in a homeless shelter. Mendez was among students who met Mrs. Obama last year. She spearheads an initiative encouraging students to pursue education after high school.

— Katrice Mubiru, of Woodland Heights, California. Mubiru, a career-technical education teacher in Los Angeles, encouraged Obama in a letter to support K-12 adult and career technical education. She met and introduced Obama in July when he visited Los Angeles Trade-Technical College to highlight technical skills programs.

— Astrid Muhammad, of Charlotte, North Carolina. Muhammad, a wife and mother of two, wrote to thank Obama for signing the Affordable Care Act. Last year, she obtained coverage under the law and had surgery to remove a potentially fatal brain tumor that was diagnosed in May 2013, when she had no health insurance.

— Kathy Pham, of Washington, D.C. Pham is a government computer scientist who works to improve health information technology, expand access to benefits for veterans and improve the way government provides services to families like hers. Her mother received cancer treatment under the new health care law and her brother earned a Purple Heart for service in Afghanistan.

—Capt. Phillip C. Tingirides, of Irvine, California. A husband and father of six, the veteran Los Angeles police officer heads the Community Safety Partnership program in the neighborhood of Watts, once scarred by race riots and subsequent gang violence. Under the program, begun in 2011, police engage with residents.

— Catherine Pugh, of Baltimore. Pugh is majority leader of the Maryland Senate who helped pass legislation increasing the state minimum wage to $10.10. She has also introduced legislation to provide the state’s workers with earned paid sick leave. Both are issues Obama is pushing at the federal level.

— Carolyn Reed, of Denver. Reed described in a letter to Obama how she expanded her submarine sandwich shop business with a loan from the Small Business Administration. Obama dined last year with Reed and other Coloradans who wrote to him. Reed also told the president she was raising her hourly employees’ wages to $10.10.

— Dr. Pranav Shetty, of Washington, D.C. Shetty is the global emergency health coordinator for International Medical Corps, a partner in the U.S.-backed effort to control the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Shetty went to Liberia in August, returned to the U.S. late last month and is going back to West Africa later this week.

— Prophet Walker, Carson, California. While serving time for robbery, Walker started a prison program to help fellow inmates complete a two-year degree. After prison, Walker became a construction engineer and has worked to improve relations among law enforcement, community activists, parents and the children of local housing projects.

—Tiairris Woodward, of Harrison, Michigan. Woodward started a second job working on Chrysler’s assembly line in 2010 to help support herself and three children, including one with special needs. She eventually began working only for Chrysler and after a year saved enough money to buy a car and rent a new apartment. The company’s tuition assistance program is aiding her pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in business management. The White House says her story is possible due to the comeback of Detroit and the U.S. auto industry.

—Ana Zamora, of Dallas. A student at Northwood University, Zamora was brought to the U.S. illegally as a child and has benefited under Obama’s program to defer deportations for eligible immigrants. Zamora wrote to Obama about her experience and says her parents will also be eligible for protection under Obama’s recent executive actions on immigration.

Univision, Biggest Spanish-Language Network, Shut Out Of Republican 2016 Debates

January 18, 2015 by  
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NEW YORK — The Republican National Committee announced Friday which networks landed 2016 presidential debates — and Univision, the most-watched Spanish-language network, didn’t make the cut.

How Republicans engage with Univision this election cycle is being closely watched given that the network reaches 96 percent of Hispanic households, a key demographic for either party hoping to win the White House. On Wednesday, BuzzFeed’s Adrian Carrasquillo described Univision, which has aggressively covered immigration reform, as “one of the Republican Party’s biggest, most complex, most painful challenges.”

In a statement to The Huffington Post, Univision spokesman Jose Zamora didn’t specifically address the Republican Party’s decision, but spoke broadly of the need for both parties to engage the network’s large audience.

“There is a very simple political reality — Hispanics will decide the 2016 presidential election,” Zamora said. “No one can match Univision’s reach and ability to inform, provide access and empower Hispanic America. Anyone who wants to reach and engage Hispanics will have to do it through Univision. The Hispanic community deserves to hear the policies and views of all political parties and Univision is committed to providing access to all points of view. We have an open invitation to all political parties to address our community on issues of importance and relevance. Candidates should not miss the opportunity to inform and engage with the fastest growing segment of the electorate.”

Jorge Ramos, the top anchor on Univision and Fusion, an English-language network launched through a partnership with ABC, said in a statement that both Republicans and Democrats “have to make sure that their debates don’t look like the 2015 Oscar nominations,” a reference to the lack of diversity among Academy Award nominees.

“The new rule in American politics is that no one can make it to the White House without the Hispanic vote,” Ramos continued. “So we still expect all candidates from both parties to talk to us on Univision and Fusion. I believe that Latinos and Millennials will decide the 2016 presidential election. The sooner Republicans and Democrats realize this, the better their chances to win the White House. It’s always a strategic mistake not to include in your plans the fastest growing segments of the electorate.”

NBC and Telemundo (the second-biggest Spanish-language network, owned by NBCUniversal) will partner on a Republican debate in Florida in February. The other networks selected were Fox News, Fox Business, CNBC, ABC and CBS.

An RNC spokesman declined to comment on the decision.

But clearly some in the party don’t feel the network has treated them well. RNC chairman Reince Preibus told BuzzFeed earlier this week “it’s highly questionable whether we’re treated fairly on Univision.”

Still, Preibus and others do engage with Ramos, an immigration reform advocate. The two sparred earlier this week over the Republican Party’s position on the issue. And Priebus will also appear Sunday on Univison’s “Al Punto,” a public affairs show hosted by Ramos.

While immigration may be the biggest hurdle for Republicans in engaging with Univision this cycle, there also appear to be concerns about the network given that part-owner Haim Saban is a prominent Hillary Clinton supporter.

Univision wasn’t the only network shut out of the Republicans debate schedule, with liberal cable network MSNBC and Bloomberg TV also not getting selected. The difference, however, is that Republicans aren’t looking to reach MSNBC’s viewership, and the two business networks selected, CNBC and Fox Business, reach larger audiences than Bloomberg.

Russell Westbrook Goes Full-On Marshawn Lynch In Post-Game Interview

January 17, 2015 by  
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Russell Westbrook is no fan of the media, and he’s borrowing a play from Marshawn Lynch to show it.

After Friday’s victory against the Warriors, the Thunder guard engaged in a less-than-forthcoming media interview in which he repeated the same basic phrase — “we did a good job of executing” — over and over and over.

Asked by Oklahoma sports columnist Berry Tramel why he was being so standoffish, Westbrook offered what appears to be the only sincere answer in the whole interview: “I just don’t like you.”

Read the full exchange below, as transcribed by NewsOK:

That second quarter run, why did that change the game?
Execution. Thought we did a good job of executing.

Down the stretch, you and Serge seemed to be in a really great rhythm. What allowed you to be so successful?
Did a good job of execution.

(Question about their small lineup)
It’s good.

Eight assists in fourth quarter. What did you see from them defensively that allowed that?
We did a good job of executing

(From Berry Tramel) Are you upset with something?
Nah. I just don’t like you.

You don’t?

You don’t like Nick (Gallo, Thunder reporter) either?
I love Nick. I don’t like you.

Well you gave us about the same answers.
Yeah. You got another question?

Played a great game. One of your better ones. Is this one of the better ones you can think of in your career?
Good execution.

Seemed like you played with a sense of urgency tonight. Has that been lacking in the past?
Did a good job of executing tonight.

Career-high 17 assists. How do you feel?
Good job of executing tonight.

Westbrook’s hostile interview also echoes a similar performance by the NFL’s Arian Foster, whose relationship with Houston media is so contentious, CBS once described it as a “dumpster on fire.”

2016 GOP Primary Debate Schedule Announced By RNC

January 16, 2015 by  
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The first GOP primary debate of the 2016 presidential election will be held in August, the Republican National Committee announced Friday.

The RNC has sanctioned nine debates from August 2015 through March 1, 2016, according to a press release. There will be no more than one debate per state.

Three more debates, two of which could take place in March 2016, are pending.

“The 2016 cycle is underway, and I can tell you it will be a landmark election for Republicans,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said. “By constructing and instituting a sound debate process, it will allow candidates to bring their ideas and vision to Americans in a timely and efficient way. This schedule ensures we will have a robust discussion among our candidates while also allowing the candidates to focus their time engaging with Republican voters.”

The nine debates and their locations are listed below, from the RNC’s release:

1. Fox News
August 2015

2. CNN
September 2015

October 2015

4. Fox Business
November 2015

5. CNN
December 2015

6. Fox News
January 2016

7. ABC News
February 2016
New Hampshire

8. CBS News
February 2016
South Carolina

9. NBC/Telemundo
February 2016

Cenk Uygur Gets ‘Mad As Hell’ For Documentary About Rise Of Online News

January 16, 2015 by  
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Polarizing rabblerouser Cenk Uygur is the subject of a new documentary that explores the birth of online news.

Co-founder of The Young Turks, the “largest news show on the Internet,” Uyger first gained notoriety for his combative, entertaining take on liberal politics. Once a staunch Republican, the movie traces the commentator’s disillusionment with the party and subsequent identification as a progressive with a mission to upend corporate media.

Mad as Hell” seeks to elicit a passionate response from viewers, with a title that gives a less than subtle nod to an essential scene from “Network”: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore,” bellows Howard Beale (Peter Finch), an exasperated TV news anchor in Sidney Lumet’s 1976 Oscar winner. Not wholly unlike Beale, Uygur is known for his impassioned, polemic style while reporting on current events and the inner-dealings of Washington lawmakers.

In 2005, The Young Turks began receiving national attention for orchestrating a 99-hour “live on air filibuster” of Samuel Alito’s Supreme Court nomination. As his fan base continued to grow, Uyger became a frequent guest on the left-leaning cable news channel MSNBC and was eventually given his own show in 2011. “Mad as Hell” charts Uyger’s journey from underground Internet agitator to mainstream media figure and back again. Uyger’s primetime program lasted all of six months, as MSNBC tried to shift the host out from the 6 p.m. hour, a time slot civil rights activist Al Sharpton now occupies.

Uygur has not hesitated to take aim at the mainstream media power structure, frequently lambasting Fox News and CNN, as well as his former employer, MSNBC.

“I think defeating Fox — and more importantly, getting the rest of the media to understand they do not do legitimate news — is very important,” he said in an interview with AlterNet in 2011. “I hope to do that through pointing out their hypocrisy, propaganda and general foolishness. But I also plan to beat them in the ratings and make them fear me.”

Watch Cenk Uygur get “Mad as Hell” in an exclusive trailer for the documentary:


ASME Announces Finalists For 2015 National Magazine Awards

January 15, 2015 by  
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The American Society of Magazine Editors revealed the nominees for its annual National Magazine Awards during an hour-long Twittercast Thursday.

A total of 66 outlets were nominated across two dozen categories, with publications competing for distinctions in everything from reporting to fiction to design to video. Better Homes and Gardens, Cosmopolitan, The Hollywood Reporter, New York and Vogue, however, are the five publications in the running for the group’s most esteemed award, Magazine of the Year. Bloomberg Businessweek, GQ, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Politico and The New Republic are also among the magazines to receive multiple nominations.

“The National Magazine Awards 2015 finalists demonstrate the enduring power of magazine journalism in print and on websites and mobile,” Sid Holt, chief executive of ASME, said in a statement. “Whether it’s politics, fashion, sports or the kind of service journalism that only magazines can do, readers know that their favorite print and digital magazines are where to find information and entertainment they can trust.”

A handful of memorable articles are also up for top prizes. Monica Lewinsky’s “Shame and Survival,” for Vanity Fair, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ long-form cover story “The Case for Reparations,” for The Atlantic, are both finalists for ASME’s Essays and Criticism award, which “honors interpretative and critical journalism.”

For the full list of 2015 National Magazine Awards nominees, head over to the American Society of Magazine Editors.

Compromising Freedoms Clouds Fight Against Terrorism

January 14, 2015 by  
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A day after at least 1.5 million came out to protest the murder of Charlie Hebdo journalists and support freedom of speech, the French Minister of the Interior announced criminal proceedings against Dieudonné, a comedian, for his “apology for terrorism.” After participating in the demonstration in Paris, Dieudonné posted that he felt like “Charlie Coulibaly,” thus provocatively combining the name of the victimized publication with that of the terrorist who killed four Jews at a kosher supermarket a day after the Charlie attack.

Diedonné had already been banned from performing in France for his harsh satire of Jews. French law criminalizes defamation and incitement to discrimination, hatred or violence against people based on their race or religion. But while the courts have ruled that Charlie Hebdo‘s irreverent cartoons spoofing the Pope and Mohammed did not constitute such an offence, they ruled differently against Dieudonné’s caustic humor, fueling stories about a Jewish conspiracy, especially among Muslim youth. Less than a handful of public figures stood up for freedom of expression in his case.

It is not hard to see the crude political logic of prosecuting an anti-Semite following a massacre of Jews, especially given the recent spate of violence against Jews in France. But given that previous efforts to stifle Diedonné’s odious Jew-baiting have only made him into a celebrity, the utilitarian rationale is evidently flawed.

More importantly, the application of human rights principles needs to be above politics. The Charlie Hebdo terror murders were aimed at suppressing the exercise of one of the most fundamental human rights. The best way to repudiate this violence against freedom is not only to proclaim, but to demonstrate respect for human rights. Yet despite rhetoric about the value of free speech in the aftermath of the killings, French authorities have, in recent years, retreated from protecting the freedom of expression — mostly in an attempt to avoid offending the Islamic community and ideological multiculturalists.

For years, French courts have been sentencing and fining citizens for speech critical of Islam. Cases recently enumerated by Guy Millière of the Gatestone Institute tell the story. There is widespread fear of speaking openly about radical or fundamentalist Islam, generating the use of politically correct code language or silent anxiety.

Christine Tasin, a founder of the “Secular Response” organization, was hauled before a court in 2013 and convicted of making “statements likely to provoke rejection of Muslims” following a public argument. The court fined her EURO 3,000, but her conviction was later overturned on appeal.

Other members of the same organization have been fined for voicing their concerns about Islamism, while a writer was convicted of “incitement to racial discrimination” for comments about the backgrounds of drug dealers. The Minister of the Interior even called for street demonstrations against him. “Secular Response” was forced to relocate to Switzerland.

While a wide range of speech has been suppressed, in the name of secularism (laïcité) France has also infringed on religious freedom. Thus, while subjecting critics of Islam to harsh penalties, the government has made it illegal for Muslim girls to wear veils in public schools, and for women to wear burqas, an obvious violation of the freedom of religion. Using astonishingly weak arguments, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the bans. The judgment has deeply alienated Muslims throughout the world, suggesting profound hypocrisy about the European commitment to human rights and the freedom of religion. Yet the ruling has been met with virtually no public criticism, other than from the Muslim community, and only a few critiques by human rights organizations.

The French state has also compromised the freedom of numerous other religious groups, who have been demonized by government leaders, blacklisted and subjected to harassment by bogus official monitoring bodies. No court prosecutes, and few public intellectuals condemn, scurrilous media attacks on minority religions called “sects.”

France has been a primary inspiration for human rights principles since the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Yet it is clear that France is now in a political and moral corner in regards to human rights as a result of contradictions and double standards in its approach toward fundamental freedoms.

The struggle against Islamic terrorism is a struggle against a form of totalitarianism. No society can successfully withstand such a challenge without itself respecting intellectual diversity and freedom. If France would recommit itself to fundamental freedoms, and rid itself of secularized blasphemy laws and discriminatory laws like the burqa ban, authorities would be on firmer ground to insist on the sanctity of individual freedom and to uphold the rule of law (for example, to regain control of Islamist-controlled urban regions). Resistance to Islamist totalitarianism would be a clearer struggle if the state were not also in the business of stifling free speech and enforcing cultural conformity.

Aaron Rhodes is President of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe and a founder of the Freedom Rights Project. He was Executive Director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights 1993-2007.

San Francisco Chronicle Names First Female Editor In Chief

January 13, 2015 by  
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For the first time in the San Francisco Chronicle’s 150-year history, a woman will serve as the paper’s editor in chief.

The paper announced Audrey Cooper, 37, as its new editor in chief Tuesday after the paper’s owner, Hearst Corporation, made the appointment.

Audrey’s news leadership at The Chronicle is emblematic of the future of all of our newspapers and websites: employ innovative storytelling to connect readers with the news and information that matters most to them,” Mark Aldam, president of Hearst Newspapers, said in a statement.

Cooper, who has been with the paper since 2006 and most recently served as managing editor, reflected on her first attempts to join the Chronicle fresh out of college.

“I applied for an internship three years in a row,” she said, smiling, the outlet notes. “I never even got a callback.”

In a statement, Cooper said she plans to grow the paper’s investigative reporting staff and expand the team’s storytelling methods.

She joins a small circle of women in top roles at major U.S. papers.

The shortage of female leadership in media became national conversation in May when New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson was ousted from her role, which, at the time, Media Matters pointed out left the country with only two female editors — Newsday’s Debbie Henley and the Houston Chronicle’s Nancy Barnes — at the helm of any of the top 25 circulation daily papers.

However, women who do rise to Cooper’s ranks still face a pay gap — albeit a narrowing one. According to Folio’s annual salary report, women in editorial director roles earn 4 percent less than men in the same position.

Resist the Tyranny of Silence After Charlie Hebdo Attack

January 12, 2015 by  
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Note: Flemming Rose was the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten in 2005-2006 when he commissioned cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that set off a global controversy, including riots across the Muslim world.

AARHUS, Denmark — Philippe Val, at the time Charlie Hebdo’s director, couldn’t hide his contempt when, in 2007 — in response to the court case against the leftist satirical magazine for publishing some cartoons of Muhammad — someone asked him whether it had been necessary. Wasn’t what Val did merely an unnecessary provocation and an attack against a weak and oppressed minority?

Charlie Hebdo had republished the cartoons from the Jyllands-Posten newspaper, along with other cartoons of the Prophet made by its cartoonists. It was a reaction against the attacks on the Danish embassies throughout the world, carrying out threats received by our newspaper.

“What kind of civilization would we be if we couldn’t make fun of, ridicule, and laugh at those who blow up trains and planes and mass murder innocents?” Phillipe Val asked himself, outraged.

The question must be asked again with renewed intensity after the killings in Charlie Hebdo’s newsroom.

Satire is one of the ways in which an open society answers violence, threats, and barbarity. Satire is peaceful, even if it stings. It does not kill; it ridicules and publicly exposes that which others wish to keep hidden. It moves us to laughter, not to fear or hatred.

“Satire is a sound civilization’s answer to savagery.”

Satire is a sound civilization’s answer to savagery. Of course, a cartoon is never worth the life of even one person. The problem is that there are some who insist on that idea.

How should we behave insofar as we are agents of free speech? How many threats and terrorist attacks will we have to witness before the “insult fundamentalists,” or those who believe they have an absolutist right not to be offended, understand that by defending their right not to be offended, by absurdly equating bad words and bad actions, they are only serving tyranny?

The killings in Paris are the tragic climax, as of today, of more than 25 years of debate in Europe about freedom of expression and its limits.

It started with Salman Rushdie, who in 1989 had to go into hiding after Iranian religious authorities published a fatwa (edict) calling all Muslim believers to murder the writer due to a couple of pages in his novel The Satanic Verses.

Since then, it’s been one case after another. Most of them have had to do with how to treat Islam in the public sphere of a democracy. But it has not always been about offended Muslims. There have been similar cases involving Sikhs, Hindus, Orthodox Christians, nationalists and all sorts of groups who insist on forbidding the expression of what they deem offensive.

“Satire doesn’t kill; it ridicules. It moves us to laughter, not to fear or hate.”

Both Charlie Hebdo and Jyllands-Posten have been forced to go to court. We were both acquitted. In a democracy under the rule of law, the court’s decisions should be respected, even when we disagree with the outcome. This is one of the ways in which we resolve conflicts. The other way is through an open and free debate.

Muslim radicals lost this debate in Denmark and France. But instead of following democracy’s basic principle of answering words with words, cartoons with cartoons, and allowing verbal arguments to speak for themselves, those who felt offended because of their God or their prophet either clung to or promoted violence.

Because of that, it’s shameful that so many voices in this debate have tried to do more than insinuate that Jyllands-Posten, Charlie Hebdo, the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, murdered in 2004, Lars Vilks in Sweden, Lars Hedegaard and Naser Khader in Denmark, Robert Redeker in France, Ayaan Hirsi Ali in Holland, Maryam Namazie in Great Britain, and many other Europeans who have been threatened or murdered in recent years, were in some way asking for it.

Even a respectable newspaper like the New York Times wrote at the time that the cartoons published in Jyllands-Posten unleashed violence in the Muslim world.

Naturally, that does not mean that the “insult fundamentalists” tolerate violence as a reaction to some cartoons. But what it does imply is that in too many places in our culture, people seem to think that words and deeds can be equally violent and offensive.


Pakistan and many other Muslim countries have even reached a point where the insult, mockery or ridicule of the Prophet through words or graphics is punished with the death penalty, the same punishment reserved for murder and terrorism. In the last few decades, the politics of identity and the struggle for an offense-free public space have contributed to the expansion of this way of thinking.

In February 2006, in the midst of the crisis of the Muhammad cartoons, Charlie Hebdo published a manifesto called “Together, Facing the New Totalitarianism.” It was signed by Salman Rushdie, Philippe Val, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dane Mehdi Mozaffari, and many other intellectuals from different parts of the public spectrum who joined in defense of freedom of speech.

The manifesto read, in part, as follows:

After having overcome fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, the world now faces a new global totalitarian threat: Islamism.

We, writers, journalists, intellectuals, call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all.

Recent events, prompted by the publication of drawings of Muhammad in European newspapers, have revealed the necessity of the struggle for these universal values.

This struggle will not be won by arms, but in the ideological field.

Then it concluded:

We refuse to renounce our critical spirit out of fear of being accused of “Islamophobia”, a wretched concept that confuses criticism of Islam as a religion and stigmatization of those who believe in it.

We defend the universality of the freedom of expression, so that a critical spirit can exist in every continent, towards each and every maltreatment and dogma.

We appeal to democrats and free spirits in every country that our century may be one of light and not dark.

Charlie Hebdo was perhaps the only European publication that, despite threats and incendiary attacks, insisted on the right to continue making fun of all religions. It aimed its darts at the Pope as often as it did at the Prophet. It worked from a well-established tradition in which nothing is sacred. A tradition that after the Reformation, and especially during the Enlightenment, kept on growing side by side with tolerance, religious freedom, and freedom of speech.

When, more than 10 years ago Theo Van Gogh was murdered in a street in Amsterdam by a young offended Muslim, the Dutch Minister of Justice, that is, the highest ranking elected defender in a democratic state, said that a strengthening of legislation against hate speech should be weighed because if such a law had existed in the first place, Theo Van Gogh would still be alive.

In other words, if certain forms of speech had been criminalized, there would have been a chance for Van Gogh, since he wouldn’t have been able to do his documentary about violence against women in the name of the Prophet in the first place — the documentary that led Mohammed Bouyeri to murder him.

“It’s shameful that so many people suggested that Charlie Hebdo was asking for it.”

Today we can say the same thing about Charlie Hebdo’s staff. If they had only limited themselves to satire against Christianity, politicians, and the Pope, if they had only left Islam alone, they would be alive. But they didn’t. They kept on doing their jobs.

And so we come back to our starting point: What kind of civilization are we if we renounce our right to publish opinions and cartoons that some people might deem offensive?

Basically, it’s a debate about how to live together in an increasingly multicultural society, while at the same time retaining our freedom. We could search for a false harmony, like they do in unfree societies, by continually criminalizing new forms of speech according to the following maxim: If you accept my taboo and you don’t speak critically or offensively about all that is sensitive and sacred to me, I will do the same for you.

In societies like ours, where diversity is growing, this road leads to a tyranny of silence.

Another road is to insist that the price that we all have to pay to live in a democracy where there is freedom of speech and freedom of religion is that no one has a special right to not be offended. The staff of Charlie Hebdo won’t have died in vain if we choose that road as an answer to their murder.


J.K. Rowling Goes After Rupert Murdoch On Twitter

January 11, 2015 by  
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Author J.K. Rowling took to Twitter on Sunday to slam Rupert Murdoch for saying all Muslims “must be held responsible” for extremist violence such as last week’s deadly attack on the headquarters of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

On Friday, the News Corp boss said via Twitter that even peaceful Muslims are responsible for the “jihadist cancer.”

Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.

— Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) January 10, 2015

On Sunday, the “Harry Potter” author linked to an article about Murdoch’s comments and unleashed a verbal stinging jinx:

I was born Christian. If that makes Rupert Murdoch my responsibility, I’ll auto-excommunicate.

— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) January 11, 2015

She didn’t stop there. She also pointed out that the faith of her birth had a few flaws of its own and (sarcastically) took responsibility:

.@dom209 The Spanish Inquisition was my fault, as is all Christian fundamentalist violence. Oh, and Jim Bakker.

— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) January 11, 2015

After the two zingers, she completed a Twitter hat trick by working some numbers into the argument:

.@peeyushmalhotra Eight times more Muslims have been killed by so-called Islamic terrorists than non-Muslims.

— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) January 11, 2015

If Murdoch has seen the tweets, he hasn’t responded. However, on Sunday he tweeted in remembrance of a Muslim hero — and victim — in last week’s attack:

Extraordinary scenes in Paris today, but do not forget the heroic sacrifice of Ahmed Merabet, Muslim police officer whose funeral was today.

— Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) January 11, 2015

(h/t WMUR)


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